No stop to slums in the sky
The Age
Chris Vedelago, Cameron Houston
03 May 2016

Melbourne City Council has conceded it is powerless to stop unscrupulous landlords and tenants from creating the same slum-like housing conditions in the CBD's high-rises that contributed to the Docklands apartment tower blaze last year.

Extraordinary images obtained by The Sunday Age reveal that up to a dozen overseas students and suspected illegal workers had been crammed into two-bedroom apartments in the Lacrosse tower on Latrobe Street.

Some residents were sleeping on balconies in Lacrosse tower.


Photographs taken after the fire show residents were also sleeping on mattresses on open-air balconies, while some living rooms had been partitioned with curtains to accommodate more people.

The Sunday Age understands that Asian students and workers are being enticed by greedy operators who advertise beds for rent on accommodation sites including AirBnB, Gumtree and Chinese-language websites.

A living room cordoned off to create an additional bedroom.


The admission from city authorities that overcrowding is "almost impossible to police" has prompted Melbourne City Council and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to call for new enforcement powers from the state government.

"This has been an issue that our firefighters have observed in other buildings and the recommendations we have made in the post-incident analysis to [the Lacrosse] fire are designed to address the public safety issue," MFB chief officer Peter Rau told The Sunday Age.

The MFB report found the blaze took just 11 minutes to engulf one side of the 23-storey building after a discarded cigarette left on an eighth floor balcony set alight the cheap, fire-prone cladding used on the exterior of the Latrobe Street building.

converted into illegal rooming houses

During the evacuation, firefighters discovered that a number of two-bedroom units had been converted into illegal rooming houses, with some packed with up to eight mattresses.

"Overall, the building did not have excessive occupancy levels but in some individual apartments this was certainly an issue," Mr Rau said. "Some of these apartments had up to four beds and mattresses in each bedroom."

Smoke alarms in many of these units had been disabled or disconnected


Smoke alarms in many of these units had been disabled or disconnected, while public spaces reserved for fire extinguishers were blocked by luggage and boxes.

The fire extinguisher cupboard in a Docklands apartment was used to store tenants' belongings.

Residents had also stored masses of clothing, cardboard, furniture, appliances and other combustible materials on some balconies, which authorities say contributed to the spread of the fire.

dangerous slum-like conditions

But a report by the council's Municipal Building Surveyor has warned that building and safety regulations are incapable of stopping operators from creating these dangerous slum-like conditions.

At present, limits can be set on the number of people per floor but not per apartment.

"The current legislation makes this part of the occupancy permit ... almost impossible to police, monitor or require compliance with," surveyor Giuseppe Genco​ wrote.

It is unclear how many people were actually living in Lacrosse, with estimates ranging from 400 to 500 based on counts taken during and after the evacuation.

stalling tactics

Mr Genco also reported that the City of Melbourne's enforcement activities were being disrupted by underground rooming-house operators that use "stalling tactics" to prevent safety inspectors from catching them in the act.

"Access rights require a minimum of 24 hours [notice to enter an apartment for an inspection], by which time the owner or leasee would most likely have removed beds, screens, etc, in order to show that it was compliant with the legislation," Mr Genco wrote.

A City of Melbourne spokesman said better enforcement arrangements "are the state government's responsibility".

"The City Of Melbourne urges the government to consider these matters and other matters raised in the MBS's report, and is willing to co-operate in any way possible to make this happen," he said.

The MFB is also recommending a review of the legislation in light of the Lacrosse fire.

"Further work needs to be done to better understand if tenancy levels can be monitored or regulated to avoid over-tenanting," Mr Rau said.

But Mark O'Brien, chief executive of the Tenants Union of Victoria, cautioned that any changes must uphold the rights of owners and renters.

"The idea that authorities could get increased powers to enter homes without permission would have to be balanced with some very strong protections and oversight."


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